Editor's comment

When this famous classical scholar viewed the descent of civilization from the heights of Greek rational thought he did not see progress. He saw a fall from the world of Sophocles and Aristotle, into the mysticism, superstition and other- worldliness that followed after them, he could only characterize it as a "failure of nerve." He belives that a world-view that fails to follow knowledge of the real world and that does not trust human reason represents a failure of people to believe in themselves. We should seek for truth and not base our lives on hopes and dreams.

Reading on: a cautionary note about progress

Murray, Gilbert Five Stages of Greek Religion Anchor Books Doubleday & Co. Garden City, NY 1955 abridged [1800 words] – a cautionary note on "progress

The Failure of Nerve

Any one who turns from the great writers of classical Athens, say Sophocles or Aristotle, to those of the Christian era must be conscious of a great difference in tone. There is a change in the whole relation of the writer to the world about him. The new quality is not specifically Christian: it is just as marked in the Gnostics and Mithras worshippers as in the Gospels and the Apocalypse, in Julian and Plotinus as in Gregory and Jerome. It is hard to describe. It is a rise of asceticism, of mysticism, in a sense, of pessimism; a loss of self-confidence, of hope in this life and of faith in normal human effort; a despair of patient inquiry, a cry for infallible revelation; an indifference to the welfare of the state, a conversion of the soul to God. It is an atmosphere in which the aim of the good man is not so much to live justly, to help the society to which he belongs and enjoy the esteem of his fellow creatures; but rather, by means of a burning faith, by contempt for the world and its standards, by ecstasy, suffering, and martyrdom, to be granted pardon for his unspeakable unworthiness, his immeasurable sins. There is an intensifying of certain spiritual emotions; an increase of sensitiveness, a failure of nerve.

My description of this complicated change is, of course, inadequate, but not, I hope, one-sided. I do not depreciate the religions that followed on this movement by describing the movement itself as a “failure of nerve.” Mankind has not yet decided which of two opposite methods leads to the fuller and deeper knowledge of the world: the patient and sympathetic study of the good citizen who lives in it, or the ecstatic vision of the saint who rejects it

I am concerned in this paper with the lower country lying between two great ranges. The one range is Greek Philosophy, culminating in Plato, Aristotle, the Porch and the Garden; the other is Christianity, culminating in St. Paul and his successors… I wish in this essay to indicate how a period of religious history, which seems broken, is really continuous, and to trace the lie of the main valleys which lead from the one range to the other, through a large and imperfectly explored territory.

The territory in question is the so-called Hellenistic Age, the period during which the Schools of Greece were ‘hellenizing” the world. It is a time of great enlightenment, of vigorous propaganda, of high importance to history.

… it is clear that by the time of Plato the traditional religion of the Greek states was, if taken at its face value, a bankrupt concern. There was hardly one aspect in which it could bear criticism; and in the kind of test that chiefly matters, the satisfaction of men’s ethical requirements and aspirations, it was if anything weaker than elsewhere. Now a religious belief that is scientifically preposterous may still have a long and comfortable life before it. Any worshipper can suspend the scientific part of his mind while worshipping. But a religious belief that is morally contemptible is in serious danger, because when the religious emotions surge up the moral emotions are not far away. And the clash cannot be hidden.

What we have to consider is the general trend of religious thought from, say [340 BC to 200 AD]. It is a fairly clear history. A soil once teeming with wild weeds was to all appearance swept bare and made ready for new sowing: skilled gardeners chose carefully the best of herbs and plants and tended the garden sedulously. But the bounds of the garden kept spreading all the while into strange untended ground, and even within the original walls the weeding had been hasty and incomplete. At the end of a few generations all was a wilderness of weeds again, weeds rank and luxuriant and sometimes extremely beautiful, with a half-strangled garden flower or two gleaming here and there in the tangle of them. Does that comparison seem disrespectful to religion? Is philosophy all flowers and traditional belief all weeds? Well, think what a weed is. It is only a name for all the natural wild vegetation which the earth sends up of herself, which lives and will live without the conscious labour of man. The flowers are what we keep alive with difficulty; the weeds are what conquer us…

Let us first consider the result of the mere denial of the Olympian religion. The essential postulate of that religion was that the world is governed by a number of definite personal gods, possessed of a human sense of justice and fairness and capable of being influenced by normal human motives. In general, they helped the good and punished the bad, though doubtless they tended too much to regard as good those who paid them proper attention and as bad those who did not.

Speaking broadly, what was left when this conception proved inadequate? If it was not these personal gods who made things happen, what was it?… It was not, of course, Zeus or Apollo who willed [things to happen]; every one knew so much: it happened by Chance. That is, Chance or Fortune willed it…

How little real difference there is between the two apparently contradictory conceptions.—”Chance would have it so.” “It was fated to be.” The sting of both phrases—their pleasant bitterness when played with, their quality of poison when believed—lies in their denial of the value of human endeavour…

So much for the result in superstitions minds of the denial, or rather the removal, of the Olympian Gods. It landed men in the worship of Fortune or of Fate.

Next, let us consider what happened when, instead of merely rejecting the Gods en masse, people tried carefully to collect what remained of religion after the Olympian system fell.

Aristotle himself gives us a fairly clear answer. He held that the origins of man’s idea of the Divine were twofold, the phenomena of the sky and the phenomena of the human soul… It is only a step from this to regarding the sun, moon, and stars as themselves divine, and it is a step which both Plato and Aristotle, following Pythagoras and followed by the Stoics, take with confidence.

Both the wandering stars and the fixed stars are “animate beings, divine and eternal,” self--acting subordinate gods…Almost all the writers of the Hellenistic Age agree in regarding the Sun, Moon, and Stars as gods… [Also] the planets were of course divine and living bodies.

The planets in their seven spheres surrounding the earth continued to be objects of adoration. They had their special gods or guiding spirits assigned them. Their ordered movements through space, it was held, produce a vast and eternal harmony. It is beautiful beyond all earthly music, this Music of the Spheres, beyond all human dreams of what music might be. The only pity is that—except for a few individuals in trances—nobody has ever heard it. Circumstances seem always to be unfavourable.

Even the way of reckoning time changed under the influence of the Planets. Instead of the old division of the month into three periods of nine days, we find gradually establishing itself the week of seven days with each day named after its planet, Sun, Moon, Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite, Kronos.

The Jews scorned such idolatrous and polytheistic proceedings. It was the old week of Babylon, the original home of astronomy and planet-worship… [But] astrology fell upon the Hellenistic mind as a new disease falls upon some remote island people…

Here on the earth we are the sport of Fate; nay, on the earth itself we are worse off still. We are beneath the Moon, and beneath the Moon there is not only Fate but something more unworthy and equally malignant, Chance – to say nothing of damp and the ills of earth and bad daemons…

The Gnostic writings consist largely of charms to be uttered by the Soul to each of the Planets in turn, as it pursues its perilous path past all of them to its ultimate home.
That journey awaits us after death; but in the meantime? In the meantime there are initiations, sacraments, mystic ways of communion…We seem to have travelled far from the simplicity of early Greek religion.

But this leads us to the second great division of our subject. We turn from the phenomena of the sky to those of the soul. As a matter of fact the whole tendency of Greek philosophy after Plato, with some illustrious exceptions, was away from the outer world towards the world of the soul…

I have tried to sketch in outline the main forms of belief to which Hellenistic philosophy moved or drifted… Yet on the whole one rises from these books with the impression that all this… mysticism is bad for men. It may make the emotions sensitive, it certainly weakens the understanding. And, of course, in this paper I have left out of account many of the grosser forms of superstition. In any consideration of the balance, they should not be forgotten…

There is no royal road in these matters. I confess it seems strange to me as I write here, to reflect that at this moment many of my friends and most of my fellow creatures are, as far as one can judge, quite confident that they possess supernatural knowledge. As a rule, each individual belongs to some body which has received in writing the results of a divine revelation.

I cannot share in any such feeling. The Uncharted surrounds us on every side and we must needs have some relation towards it, a relation which will depend on the general discipline of a man’s mind and the bias of his whole character. As far as knowledge and conscious reason will go, we should follow resolutely their austere guidance. When they cease, as cease they must, we must use as best we can those fainter powers of apprehension and surmise and sensitiveness by which, after all, most high truth has been reached as well as most high art and poetry: careful always really to seek for truth and not for our own emotional satisfaction, careful not to neglect the real needs of men and women through basing our life on dreams; and remembering above all to walk gently in a world where the lights are dim and the very stars wander.